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Digitalization in music performance

There is now a generation of digital natives. For those of us who remember the pre-digital world, it is astonishing to realize how naturally binary technology has taken root in our lives, indeed how it has already become its foundation. If I am forced to go to bed because of my health, my work remains unfinished; similarly, if my digital miracle machines do not perform their computing tasks smoothly I am unable to complete my daily work. For a long time now the computer has had nothing to do with numbers. The building blocks of the 1-0 code have been animated. Fortunately, consolidation has taken place; laptops, mobile phones, tablets, email, Word, pdf, youtube etc. have become established. Whether or not Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a Jules Verne prophecy that is now being exaggerated for profit will soon become clear. Intelligence and reason have never been the province of the sorcerer's apprentice machine-- life is simply more than codes and submissive command execution. However, it has been proven that complex information such as music and movies can now be reduced to binary codes.

Thoughts and theoretical foundations, however, cannot be reduced to a few crisp statements. The good old book (it doesn't have to be too thick), and the well-researched article that is not crammed into a few characters, are still the foundation on which we build and transfer our knowledge and establish our intersubjective definition of truth.

Music has suffered badly from this shift to digitalization. Music can now only be a few streamed bits. If, as in classical music, the focus is always on the familiar, life is swept away by the stream of unending reproducibility. Art history is not driven by theory; it is the imagination, the power of realization, and the will to persevere of the individual artist, the one who breaks new ground, that determines the dialectic of the course of history.

Theory is important, however, to channel the Dionysian force and thus lend structure to artistic creation. Around 1970 a cultural paradigm shift occurred, as Thomas Kuhn described for science. In 1966 the eloquent Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) spoke of the fraying of the arts in his essay "Die Kunst und die Künste" (Art and the Arts). A fraying carpet as a metaphor should be viewed negatively in two senses. Firstly, a carpet should provide a safe and comfortable surface and secondly, fraying carpets are a sign of irreversible deterioration. The fact that Adorno even speaks of "fraying demarcation lines" at the beginning shows how much the avowed avant-gardist was influenced by the war and its impact on his thinking. It is due to his biography. Two conclusions can be drawn from this: 1) Adorno sensed that an era of consolidated forms was coming to an end; and 2) it reflects that this development was a negative one for him. Adorno was a highly sensitive observer of art, especially music as a trained composer. As much as he recognized a nerve of the times at the end of his abruptly ending life, he could only classify it as the loss of an artistic epoch that he revered. In accordance with his contradictory and conservative spirit, he recognized that around 1970 a threshold occurred that he regretfully no longer survived and ultimately based on a feeling that was deprived of its foundation.

There was an unstoppable development in which the arts freed themselves from their bubbles and began confronting and dialoguing with each other. Jerrold Levinson (b. 1948), a cultural philosopher from the USA unaffected by European cultural pessimism, wrote about hybrid art forms. A hybrid (of two origins) is a new form created from two different genres With scientific meticulousness Levinson distinguishes three different variations of hybridization: 1) juxtapositional hybrids, i.e. the combination of two arts that can also be thought of independently of each other; 2) synthesis, i.e. the equal fusion of two elements into something new; and 3) transformation, in which one art form is transformed and converted in the direction of another. The concept of the hybrid, borrowed from biology or, today, from the automobile, is too rigid for my taste, because Levinson's tripartite division always occurs in combination.

In my blog “Die Fluidität der Künste” (The Fluidity of the Arts), I choose this flexible term to capture the fact that the arts are breaking free from their fixed frameworks and entering into new contacts. Much has happened 50 years after Adorno's text, and viewing this development as a negative loss is definitely outdated. The attraction no longer lies in proposing newly established artistic frameworks, but in how individual works of art are redefined through hybridization.

The most established of these artistic collaborations can be summarized under the term performance, whose protagonist Marina Abramovic was consecrated at the Moma in New York. She was commissioned to realize the stage design for Debussy's opera Pélleas et Mélisande in a dance version at the theater in Geneva. Comparable: Lachenmann's opera Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (see my blog at the Zurich Opera, where a ballet determined the actual stage action, which was not the original intention. But the talking dancers of Pina Bausch or the instrumental theater of Mauricio Kagel or Jürg Wyttenbach from Switzerland also provided forms. From the world of theater, Herbert Fritsch and Christoph Marthaler liquefied the scene, as did the spectacles of Schlingensief and Milo Rau. It is also significant how poetry created popular attention in a slam poetry scene.

The fluidity of the arts also received a boost from the technical side with an invading offer from outside. The digitalization mentioned at the beginning has opened up more and more possibilities over the last 50 years. The fact that computer technology operates along the lines of our nervous system can be seen in the networking of the World Wide Web, where a quasi-dentrine-like network of information exchange between people is emerging. This is now being grappled with in the highly topical discussion about artificial intelligence. It will soon become clear whether the latter is not too ambitious and, in the manner of Jules Verne, exaggerates the prophecy into euphoria. The hyped historian Huval Hariri, for example, leans surprisingly far out of the window here and presumes to predict the future, as he interprets history in a thoroughly illuminating way. In the visual arts, images are already produced by machines. According to my music-based assessment, the computer can produce something similar to art, but it is bad art in any case if you want to label it as such, because the creator on the computer is still a human being - he or she is simply using an instrument, which has no novelty effect whatsoever.

It is sometimes not important that the machine could also do the thinking and creating for us; the decisive factor is that data processing using binary codes now allows artistically sensitive and spontaneous creation that is also suitable for the stage. The early days of electronic music, when creativity was rooted in the studio - led by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael König in Cologne - and post-production led to electronic sound files (then tapes), are over. On the theatrical stage it is no longer necessary to play prefabricated sound documents alone, but digital technology can create networks that offer direct contact and simultaneous exchange.

We remember the flickering television tubes that adorned the stages, which conveyed an appeal of topicality but remained anemic in terms of content. Projection has become increasingly sophisticated, allowing moving stage sets to be created and live manipulated images to be processed. In music, live signals can be processed, data from the smallest microphone devices can be transmitted wirelessly and loudspeakers of all shapes and sizes can stream sounds from any source. The sensor technology is also so sophisticated that movement can be incorporated and today, of course, robots can also amaze the audience.

As a performer and composer of live music, my contact with electronics has always been ambivalent. Acoustic music production thrives in particular on spontaneity and immediacy at the moment of performance. In the meantime, the initially rigid electronics have softened and become more flexible. The great expense associated with the equipment and manpower required was and continues to be an obstacle to the already precarious financial requirements. Even after 70 years of electronic music, the situation in terms of space and infrastructure in the compositional field is still unsatisfactory, inhibiting and even hindering.

With SABRE, I have been pursuing the desire to integrate electronics into my compositional work since the beginning of my career, because the development of classical instruments came to an end at the end of the 1960s. This may come as a surprise, because so-called contemporary techniques in the field of sound are still sold as new and are classified as such by the casual public. Today, electronics cannot produce sounds that can be classified as new. The "il faut absolument moderne" demand of modernism has also been exhausted here.

However, there are two areas where there is still potential for improvement, and for which SABRE can now present solutions. Firstly, in the expansion of interactivity: the instrumentalist can electronically expand and spontaneously shape their sound directly from the instrument using the applied sensor. The electronics develop from within the instrumental sound and are not imposed from outside. Prefabricated sound additions can also be placed inside the instrument as sound files, or can be designed as individual sound productions. Secondly, there are new options for relating the fluidity of the arts to an internal digital network. The art forms of music and video can thus be held together by an artificial nervous system and do not have to be related to each other from the outside, which is always a reduction in their genuine naturalness.

But the following has always applied and continues to apply: the artistic content and its form are decisive. Technique offers no content and no meaning. Art remains art. Technical aids are always only extensions of the human mind, but cannot take over its role. It is precisely the strangeness of the machine that makes it difficult to relate to the human being, which is what must be offered to an audience. It is precisely here that SABRE is able to humanize digital technology from the perspective of music through the flexibility, interactivity and spontaneity it has gained. It is a process that is based on a long tradition, has led to visions and, for several decades now, can be realized with the combined forces of art and technology and now offers an interim inventory.

Matthias Mueller di Minusio, November 2023

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